Hamilton College Commencement
20 May 2012
This morning I want to try to share a few things I’ve learned.
Life is full of twists and turns. At each turn, you are given a choice to make. With each choice your life will take you in a direction you may not have anticipated.
So, don’t get too comfortable with where you think your life is headed. There are surprises ahead and choices to be made!
Some will be exhilarating. Some will hurt like hell. You will learn from each choice, and move on … until the next twist and turn.
I was a 15-year-old kid from a small upstate New York town attending a rural public high school. My family moved to Chicago and I found myself at a big all-boys Dominican high school in a big city. The first major “twist and turn” of my life.
Two years later, I surprised my parents and my high school principal who expected me to go to Notre Dame or Georgetown when I chose to come to Hamilton College.
I wanted a liberal arts college with small classes and the opportunity to get involved with classmates in a wide range of activities and sports.
My first meaningful life choice.
My first year I lived in Dunham with 232 fellow freshmen…All of us anxious…Living together in close quarters …and eating together… in one commons. We really got to know each other and to begin to forge friendships that in some cases have lasted a lifetime.
I started out at Hamilton as an aspiring math major. When math got too theoretical and I got a “D” on my first-year final exam, I decided History would be a better fit for me.
Twist. Turn. Choice.
In the second half of my second year, one of my best friends left school to join the Marine Corps and go to Vietnam. I decided I needed to get away. So I applied at the last minute to the Hamilton Junior Year in France program. Fortunately they overlooked two uninspiring years of French language study and accepted me. My third year I was off to Paris to study history and politics at Institute D’etudes Politiques, and art, cinema, and drama at the Sorbonne.
Another Twist. Turn. Choice.
Every Friday night, I’d catch a ride with a truck driver from Les Halles – the big, open market in Paris. Every Sunday night, I’d hitchhike back. That’s how I saw most of France.
My year in Paris was packed with emotions and experiences:
I returned to the Hill for my senior year…I enjoyed living at the Psi U house, concentrating on my history studies, preparing my senior thesis on the Trial of the Templars with “Digger” Graves, the chairman of the Department…I cherished the time spent just “hanging out” with friends.
In 1969 I left Hamilton to take a four-year Ph.D. teaching fellowship to study Medieval and Renaissance European history at the University of Virginia.
My studies had barely begun in Charlottesville when I won the first draft lottery for the Vietnam War. The week before Christmas, I enlisted in the U.S. Navy.
Twist, turn, another choice.
I had an unusual military experience.
I started out in Military Intelligence (an oxymoron) in Washington, D.C. I studied communications, electronics and Modern Hebrew every day for a year. I was headed to the Middle East when another officer suffered a heart attack in Japan. My name popped out of the computer and after a crash course in retailing I was sent off to run retail and service businesses at a big airbase just outside Tokyo.
Another twist and turn. In this case no choice.
This was my first chance to work in a REAL business. And, surprisingly, I loved it. We operated grocery, department and specialty stores, and a wide range of services including military bars and clubs – complete with gambling and live entertainment.
All the retail and service operations for a “small town” of about 10,000 – Navy, Marine Corps and their families.
Customer service standards were high. But, profits mattered because they paid for all the recreational services like golf, tennis and swim clubs, movie houses and bowling alleys.
It was a great experience – a chance to learn a lot about business from the ground up.
I was hooked!
When I left the Navy, I knew what I wanted to try next…I enrolled in Harvard Business School and spent two great years in Boston.
The next turn. The next choice.
Two years later, a few weeks before my 30th birthday, I accepted my first real job offer from Procter and Gamble in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Twists and turns… Choices to make…
No looking back…. always moving ahead.
Still, there are a few things I wish I’d known when I sat where you’re sitting today…a few choices I wish I would have begun to make. Not so my life would have turned out differently. Rather, to have helped me work through some of life’s twists and turns with less drama and stress.
First: CHOOSE TO KNOW YOURSELF.
While my four years at Hamilton helped begin to give me some insight…I sure didn’t have crystal-clear answers to these questions.
In fact, it wasn’t until I was in my 30s that I became aware of how valuable a Personal Mission Statement can be. It helped me think through my whole life, and my whole self… to think about my roles in life – as a professional, as a partner and spouse, as a father, a friend, and a citizen.
My mission statement helped me begin to set personal goals – to coordinate them with my professional goals. It kept me focused and motivated.
Set aside some time now, and put in some effort now to begin to write your Personal Mission. It’s not a to do list….It’s not a bucket list… it’s not a road map.
It’s a working statement of personal aspiration. What you want your life to be about as you start down that twisting, turning road. It informs all the other choices you will make.
Second: CHOOSE TO BE CLEAR ABOUT AND TO LIVE YOUR VALUES.
Personal values are non-negotiable. There’s little reward in a life of accomplishment that comes at the expense of your integrity and core values.
That’s never been more evident than today, when unfortunately too much of the world you’re about to enter has been tarred by human failure and misbehavior.
People watch and judge what you do… NOT what you say. To succeed with your life, it’s essential that you earn – and never lose – the trust of those around you.
Do what you say you’ll do, and choose to do it in a way that’s true to the values that define you.
Rely on your values to guide your choices and your actions. Don’t be afraid to articulate your values. Your values define who you are and help you make clearer choices at every turn in your life.
Third: CHOOSE TO ACCEPT THAT CHANGE IS THE ONLY CONSTANT IN LIFE.
Twists and turns are the inevitable changes in each of our lives. I’ve found that those who learn to embrace change will thrive.
I didn’t anticipate the twists and turns in my life… but each pushed and pulled me along my path. Most came without much notice and every one demanded I make a choice.
It’s only natural to fear change. Each of you face your own, entirely unique twists and turns. The key is to get out ahead of the few choices you can anticipate so you’re prepared for the inevitable surprises you cannot anticipate.
Fourth: CHOOSE TO SEE THINGS AS THEY ARE.
We all have a tendency to want to see things as we’d like them to be, not as they really are. This is human. But there’s no substitute for knowing what you’re up against. And there’s no more liberating experience – even if painful – than facing up to reality.
I’m a believer in actively seeking out reality. I’ve tried to cultivate relationships with people I can trust to give me the unvarnished truth about myself and the situations we face together.
Find these real friends in your life…and surround yourself with people who will always tell you the truth.
With their help, you’ll be able to see things as they are. When you do, you’ll see more opportunities…and you’ll make better choices.
Fifth: CHOOSE TO BECOME A MASTER in an area where your talents and passion come together.
When I was in high school, I focused on math and science. In college, history and languages. In business school, on general management and strategy. When I joined P&G, I focused on becoming a market master. Later, I became a student of leadership.
Get clear early on about where your interests might lie and then commit to build some personal mastery in your interest area.
The best way to identify potential for mastery is to explore areas where your passion and your talents converge. Peter Drucker commented once that no one ever goes from incompetence to greatness.
It’s important to know where you’re not competent. (I can assure you I am incompetent at a lot of things!) And, to know where you may be able to develop some competency… and then choose to play to your strengths.
When you choose a field to master, seek out the people – the teachers and coaches and mentors – and the experiences… to help you build the mastery you seek.
Sixth: CHOOSE TO LEAD THE CHANGE YOU WANT TO SEE IN THE WORLD AROUND YOU.
Leaders are not born. Leaders choose to lead because they see an opportunity to make a difference – and they act on it. Their character, their personal values, and their leadership are forged in their desire to make a difference.
Your leadership will be critical in the years and decades ahead.
My generation hasn’t made all the tough choices we should have. And the simple reality is that your generation will face some big challenges: consistent economic growth… environmental sustainability… social justice… the list is long.
These challenges demand leadership – leadership that begins in the communities and neighborhoods in which we live and work every day. By choosing to get personally involved, you begin to create the change that you want to see in the world that impacts you, your family and your friends.
The seventh and final choice is where all the other choices come together. CHOOSE TO BE YOURSELF.
While you can’t control the twists and turns that will push and pull your life in unanticipated directions, you can influence and control the person you choose to become. You can take advantage of every choice you make to reflect your personal values and to achieve your personal aspirations.
Your aspirations will change and evolve as you go through life – but I think you’ll find inspiration by asking yourself:
Your journey begins with knowing yourself but it’s defined by the courage to be yourself.
Choose to go with your passion and interests… choose to have fun as you navigate the twists and turns ahead.
In closing, I thought it only fitting to share with you some thoughts from one of my favorite philosophers… Theodor Geisel … aka Dr. Seuss. And, so I quote from “Oh! The Places You’ll Go!”
“Today is your day! You’re off to Great Places! You’re off and away!
You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself in any direction you choose.
You’re on your own. And you know what you know.
And YOU are the one who’ll decide where you’ll go…”
You’ll look up and down streets. Look ‘em over with care.
About some you will say: “I don’t choose to go there…”
Any you may not find any you’ll want to go down.
In that case, of course, you’ll head straight out of town.
It’s opener there, in the wide-open air… Out there things can happen…
And when things start to happen, don’t worry, don’t stew.
Just go right along. You’ll start happening too!”
Tomorrow… Monday, May 21, 2012
Start making things happen!